Explainer: Broadband Internet Access in Latin America

By Rachel Glickhouse

AS/COA Online looks at Latin America’s largest internet populations by number of users, as well as government efforts to expand broadband networks.

With a growing number of broadband networks and increasing mobile connectivity, Latin America has seen a boom in internet usage. There are an estimated 255 million internet users in Latin America and the Caribbean, representing around 43 percent of the region’s population. Argentina leads the region in terms of internet penetration at 68 percent, according to a 2012 Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers study. Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia follow with the highest penetration rates in Latin America, with more than 50 percent having online access.

Broadband, a faster form of internet connection than the traditional dial-up service, has expanded throughout the region. The UN Broadband Commission’s September 2012 report showed that Latin America had 145 million fixed broadband subscriptions at the end of 2011, accounting for about a quarter of the global total. The region also accounted for 286 million mobile broadband connections. Uruguay leads Latin America in household broadband penetration at 39.4 percent, followed by Chile and Argentina. Brazil has the greatest mobile broadband penetration in the region at nearly 21 subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. For overall broadband penetration, Chile ranks highest in the region at over 10 percent.

Still, Latin America’s internet connectivity lags behind many parts of the globe. If broadband penetration grew by just 10 percent, the region’s GDP could increase by an average of over 3 percent, the World Bank found. In an effort to expand broadband access, governments throughout Latin America created programs to make broadband more affordable. New initiatives also seek to extend fiber-optic networks, a more reliable form of transmission than electric copper wiring, to low-income and rural areas. AS/COA Online looks at Latin America’s largest internet populations by number of users, as well as government efforts to expand broadband access.

Browse by country, listed in order of number of internet users:

Brazil: As of August 2012, Brazil had 94.2 million internet users, according to an Ibope Media study released in November. In this report, users included children and teens from ages 2 to 15 for the first time. This makes Brazil the fifth most connected country in the world.

Telebrasil estimated that Brazil’s broadband networks received 86 million accesses in 2012, representing a 45 percent increase from the previous year. According to Cisco’s Broadband Barometer, Brazil had 25.5 million fixed broadband connections in December 2012.

Passed by decree in 2010, Brazil’s National Broadband Plan aims to connect 40 million households to high-speed broadband internet by 2014. Around 6 million families have already signed up to get connected at discounted rates. In September, President Dilma Rousseff said the government will monitor broadband speeds, since in some cases internet users only receive 10 percent of the speed they pay for. The government now requires companies to provide at least 60 percent of the speed spelled out in customer contracts. By 2014, companies will have to provide at least 80 percent. The plan also calls for building a fiber-optic network connecting 27 state capitals.

Mexico: Approximately 52 million Mexicans access the Internet, with a 46 percent penetration rate, according to a 2012 Tecnológico de Monterrey study. Around five out of 10 Mexicans have an internet connection, though only 9.8 out of 100 inhabitants have broadband access. Mexico has around 10.7 million broadband connections, with one of the highest fixed broadband penetration rates in Latin America but the lowest of the OECD countries.

Last year, the government introduced a number of initiatives to expand broadband access. The March 2012 “Actions for Strengthening Broadband and Information Technology” plan and Digital Agenda aims to use public-private investments to build broadband infrastructure, reduce broadband costs, and increase digital education. By extending the country’s fiber-optic network, the goal is to reach over 400 municipalities without internet connections.

While campaigning, President Enrique Peña Nieto—who took office in December—proposed his own digital agenda, though his administration has yet to release a new plan. In a group of 95 proposals laid out by the Peña Nieto administration, the Pacto por México (Pact for Mexico) includes guaranteeing broadband in public places and creating a digital agenda.

Argentina: This Southern Cone country has approximately 28 million internet users with the highest rates of internet penetration—68 percent. In September 2012, the country’s National Statistics and Census Institute counted 10.3 million residential accesses to the internet—a nearly 40 percent increase from the previous year. The Institute also found a 40 percent rise in broadband access, with 10.2 million accessing broadband networks. Despite high rates of broadband use, the cost of high-speed internet tends to be greater than that of Latin America.

Launched in October 2010 by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina Conectada (Argentina Connected) seeks to expand internet access across the country. The $1.8 billion plan aims to build a 31,000-mile fiber optic network, extending connectivity to areas with the least amount of infrastructure. The plan also intends to widen broadband coverage, as well as improving quality and speed of service, particularly in rural areas. The plan includes a digital inclusion component, aiming to create centers for public internet access and digital training. Launched in April 2010, the program Conectar Igualdad (Connecting Equality), gives free laptops to public high school students, and has awarded 2.2 million computers so far.

Colombia: This Andean country is home to an estimated 25 million internet users and a 54 percent internet penetration rate. Colombia counted 4.72 million fixed and mobile broadband connections from January through June 2012. In December, the country saw approximately 6 million total broadband accesses. The UN estimates that Colombia has 6.9 fixed broadband connections per 100 inhabitants, and 3.7 mobile broadband connections per 100.

The Colombian government launched the Plan Vive Digital (Digital Living Plan) in October 2010. The initiative aims to triple the number of municipalities connected to the national fiber-optic network and to reach 8.8 million internet connections by 2014. The plan also intends to guarantee internet connectivity for at least 50 percent of households. The project includes the National Fiber Optic Plan, which uses a public-private partnership model to connect municipalities currently without high-speed internet. Since 2010, the number of small- and medium-sized businesses with internet access doubled, and 325 municipalities are now connected to the fiber-optic network.

Venezuela: An estimated 12.5 million internet users live in this Andean country, which has a penetration rate of 42 percent. With one of the fastest growing internet populations in the world, the number of Venezuelans using the web grew 62 percent from April 2011 to April 2012. Conatel, Venezuela’s telecommunications commission, estimated that at the end of 2012, there were 2.04 million fixed broadband subscribers and 1.4 million mobile broadband users. Broadband rates in Venezuela count among the least expensive broadband rates in Latin America, but internet connections in this country are some of the slowest in the world.

The government offers a number of initiatives in place to expand internet access to the country’s poorest. Created in 2000, President Hugo Chávez’s Infocentro project built over 800 internet centers in low-income communities; it continues to construct new hubs. The government also implemented a technology education program, which has provided computer and internet skills to 1.6 million since 2006. Since 2009, 2.4 million laptops were given to primary school students through the government’s Canaima program.

Nationalized in 2007, state-run telecoms company CANTV is working to extend the country’s fiber-optic network and cover over 11,000 miles and 90 percent of the population. To expand home-based internet use, CANTV offers affordable computer loans to low-income Venezuelans who sign up for an internet connection.